Ferdinand Waldo Demara was “The Greatest Con Artist”

He expertly severed a soldier’s leg while playing a surgeon, but no one realised who he was until his image emerged in a newspaper article praising his abilities.

In primary school, we were always taught that “history is the teacher of life.” In retrospect, I see how much I missed the point and how little interest I had in history at the time, but that was a long time ago.

Long before social media platforms existed, there were con artists and scammers.

I’ve talked about influencer fraud before, but around the turn of the twentieth century, one of the biggest con artists piqued the public’s curiosity.

Who was Ferdinand Waldo Demara?

In comparison to other superstars that graced magazine covers at the time, Ferdinand Waldo Demara was not well-known as an actor, astronaut, hero, or politician.

His professional background has been somewhat varied.

Among other things, he was a doctor, professor, jail warden, and monk.

Demara was not a genius. In fact, he dropped out of school without a diploma.

He was “The Great Con Artist,” a beguiling bandit who duped others into thinking he was famous.

I grew quite intrigued in Demara as a man while reading and researching for my podcast. In contrast to other con artists and scammers, he did not steal and lie for financial gain.

Demara desired to advance in rank and infamy

Ferdinand Waldo Demara was born in the little town of Lawrence in the American state of Massachusetts in 1921. Early in his life, he pulled off his first con: he didn’t have enough money to buy chocolate at the neighbourhood candy store, so he deceived the clerks into giving the class free chocolates.

Once he’d felt the adrenaline of a successful scam, there was no turning back.

When Monk Demar dropped out of school in 1935, he lacked the required skills to be successful in the groups that attracted him in. He lacked the patience required to get the necessary certifications, but he craved the status of being a priest, professor, or military officer.

And thus, his life of deception began.

Demara ran away from his home in Lawrence, Massachusetts, at the age of 16, claiming to be of the proper age to enter the Trappist monastic order.

When his parents discovered him, they let him stay since they expected him to eventually give up. Demara stayed with the monks long enough to acquire a hood and a habit, but when he was 18, he was forced to leave because his fellow monks thought he had the proper temperament.

Demara then attempted to join the other orders, but again violated the rules. It was also a ruse he employed several times during his career. He even helped to build a religious university on one occasion.

Life in the military and the navy

He joined the army at the age of 19 in 1941. But, as it turned out, the army was not for him either. He was so dissatisfied with military life that he stole a friend’s name and deserted, eventually joining the Navy.

He worked as a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania under a bogus name and without a degree. He also studied law under a false identity.

Demara was granted permission to pursue medical training while serving in the Navy. Despite passing the prerequisite course, his lack of education stopped him from progressing.

Demara then provided his first set of bogus credentials, claiming to have earned the necessary college credits to get admitted to medical school. He was so pleased with his creations that he decided to seek for an officer’s commission rather than medical school.

After his fraudulent documents were discovered, Demara feigned to be dead and escaped once more.

Demara pretended to be dead and left when his fraudulent papers were discovered.

In 1942, Demara assumed the persona of Dr. Robert Linton French, a former navy officer and psychologist. When he worked at the institution, he uncovered French’s information in an old campus brochure that featured French.

Demara was arrested and convicted for desertion while working as a college lecturer under a French name until the end of the war in 1945.

Due to his exceptional behaviour, he only served 18 months of his six-year term, but he returned to his old ways upon release.

Demara changed his name to Cecil Hamann and enrolled at Northeastern University this time. Tired of the effort and time required to complete his legal degree, Demara earned a doctorate and accepted another teaching position at Christian College in Maine as “Dr” Cecil Hamman in the summer of 1950.

A surgeon who does not have a medical degree

His most famous scam, however, took place on a Canadian ship during the Korean War.

He worked as a surgeon on the battleship HMS Cayuga as Dr. Joseph Cyr.

He only knew about medicine from the text of the ship’s other doctor, whom he had forced to write the norms of practice in case he found himself alone on the ship with no other doctor.

He operated on 19 Korean troops who had been struck by gunfire and shrapnel on one occasion.

‘Dr. Joseph Cyr’ became well-known as a result of his exceptional profession, even reaching the genuine dr. Joseph Cyr.

Even after the fraud was exposed, the Canadian Navy refused to charge Demara.

In order to avoid more scandal and public scrutiny, the Canadian government chose to simply deport Demara back to the United States in November 1951.

After returning to America, word of his exploits spread, and Demara sold the tale to Life magazine in 1952. After returning to the United States, he attempts to spend time living under his own name and reforming his habits of behaviour.

Though he enjoyed the celebrity that came with his “The Great con artist” character, he gradually began to dislike living as Demara, “The Great con artist.”

The prison guard

Demara took on a new identity in 1955 when he began working as a guard at the Texas jail in Huntsville. He was eventually granted command of the highest security wing, which housed the most dangerous inmates.

But after a year of labor, one of the prisoners discovered a Life magazine article and handed the jail authorities Demara’s cover image.

After being apprehended in North Haven, Maine in 1957, he was sentenced to six months in jail.

A con artist’s career is coming to an end

He worked as a chaplain at a hospital in Anaheim, California, for his last employer.

He was exposed there too, but because he became close friends with the management and one of the hospital’s owners, he was let to stay.

He worked there until 1980, when he gave the final anointing to well-known actor Steven McQueen.

Ferdinand Waldo Demara had both of his legs amputated after suffering from diabetes-related heart failure two years prior to his death.

Even though Demara had a really interesting life and never really cared about money, which didn’t inspire him to succeed in anything he did, in the end, a con artist is just a con artist.

This post was written by Mario Bekes